19 February 2012
Don’t try to figure me out
Don’t try you’ll only fail
I’m not a reed in the sand
You’re already starting to pale
Everyone’s gone for the summer again,
Something is building, I don’t understand
A hummingbird larks in my hand
But I’m too busy chasing parades
To ever love you the same
Just breathe, he’s going away
I find myself typing on a typical Sunday afternoon here in Glenwood. I’m at ArtsCafe, the coffee shop that adjoins the KwaZulu-Natal Society of Art Gallery. It’s the only café in the neighbourhood that’s open on a Sunday, and it’s a mixed indoor/outdoor space, with well-worn tabletops, sleek wooden furniture and a terraced platform of brick steps that local children delight in running up and down at top speed, heedless of the effects of gravity. As I sip the last dregs of my lukewarm black coffee, I feel myself swallowing down the mild irritation I’m feeling all around me—with myself, with the neighbourhood, with my work, with, well—everything.
Tomorrow marks five months since I got on a plane and left the United States. I have become somewhat established here, I have friends and people that I see regularly, make plans with, and feel a part of a larger community. I feel, on some levels, “settled in”—which is no small amount of irony for someone who critically studies settlement, occupation, and making of space. Some of the odd paradoxes of gender, race, and space have become increasingly familiar by my staying here, and while I am occasionally jolted out of my newfound familiarity by a strange remark or the rough edges of research, things have become rather…well, routine.
Part of me is rather disappointed by routine (and deeply amused, since that’s what I craved more than anything else when I got here in September, being the ungrateful postmodern introspective grad student that I am), by the notion that things have become comfortable and therefore less challenging in a way. I find myself asking what my role and purpose is here: is it to continue to gather the best and most helpful archive materials? Is it to live in a space and therefore be accountable to the work that goes on here? Is it to continue to push myself to be more than just an easily comfortable historian of empire in general and South Africa in particular?
I’ve been meditating somewhat on the effects of routine of late, but it really came to the fore for me when I was having an online chat with my advisor last week. She gently pointed out that, with few exceptions, I have been focusing on nearly one sole archive for the past few months. While incredibly rich in information, it might not be the best approach to spend the entire trip mining the depths of this particular space, she offered politely. I nodded in ready agreement, beginning to realize how easily structured my life had become—Monday through Friday poring over newspapers and journals and letters with the intermittent indulgence in social media sits to entertain a conversation about race or gender or sexuality or kittens before a stop for coffee in town, a quick run in the neighbourhood and either dinner quietly at home with a book or an outing to a local pub with friends in the area. All of these are perfectly fine, or course, but I began to wonder just how dependent I had become upon routine to make sense of the madness of my life and to provide stability.
Nowhere was this more apparent than this morning, when I went to my beloved ArtsCafe, where I spend most Sunday mornings/afternoons poring over research books and typing notes over a coffee (or three) and my personal favourite menu choice: buttermilk French toast coated in lemon curd and served with hot, crispy bacon. I ordered it automatically today, smiling at the idea of eating the best breakfast in the history of the universe and enjoying my weekly dose of bacon-related happiness. Alas, the café has chosen to reinvent its menu for the month and discontinue many items including the French toast that I love so very much. The sheer power of my emotional reaction—absolute disappointment mixed with a ludicrous amount of anger—demonstrated to me just how deeply I’ve allowed my reliance on routine to make my life comfortable. Also, I live in a country where the unemployment rate is staggering, people live in abject poverty, and my painfully bourgeois self is bemoaning a lack of fancy French toast that I could a) make at home and b) should just get over? It’s occurred to me that for starters, I need to get out of the suburban bubble that is Glenwood more often and remember that it is not the center of the universe, although it is so very, very easy to make it so.
Pack up your jacket and shoes
Kiss all my friends one more time
Don’t take a minute on paintings you see
There’s a curtain of red on the blinds
One aspect of living in a space for some time is that you grow attached to people, and then they leave. I occasionally—believe it or not—forget that I am part of the coterie of foreigners that traipse in and out of South Africa frequently, and I begin to think that I belong here in a sense (a dangerous aspect of settlement that is entirely natural and even more disconcerting). This past month a group of foreigners—mainly Canadian—have moved on from Durban as part of the natural order of things. It’s strange to see them go, to attend their good byes, their sending offs, the ritual exchanges of sadness/happiness/excitement/regret that accompany these social gestures. In my narcissistic way, I remember that I, too, am leaving at some point, and that these people, this space is temporary. I will be moving on, and taking these experiences with me. Remembering this pushes on me further—how am I responsible to this location? How do I appreciate the shit out of being here (and not mourn over a lack of French toast?) and respect the privilege that it is to occupy this space, for all the inequality of power and space that entails? I’m thinking about this a lot, I’m worried about it a lot, and I don’t have an easy answer, amigos.
One thing I do tend to have a lot of is opportunity to get into conflict. I think that one aspect of being comfortable in this space is that the ‘guest’ attitude has in many ways worn off in my interactions. I’m looser, warmer, blunter, and less self-possessed; I’m far more likely to say what I think (which is hardly a problem to begin with) after a few months in this country. I’ve found myself of late getting into a bunch of heated arguments, quarrels, bickerings, and snipings with people. In particular, I grow frustrated with my fellow members of the coterie internationale, those lovely foreigners sharing close quarters and space with me. Like high schoolers in an artificial and tiny social bubble, we bicker over things said and unsaid, perceived slights, and the rough edges of one another’s personality. I’ve gotten into falling outs of late due to my unfortunate tendency to defer to snarky defensiveness when I encounter a comment or action that I feel disrespects me.
Perhaps that, then, is another negative result of routine in my Glenwood-bubble. I’m strangely invested in ‘belonging’ here, and sometimes I default to kneejerk responses, snapping at people in pursuit of my own claims to space, to say that I am here and I deserve to be here. Hours later, I find myself taking routine long walks through Glenwood’s leafy streets, or occasionally on the seashore, reflecting on my own hasty self-protectiveness, and regretting the turn of words and exchanges of the day. This, I feel, is the rough truth of settlement, in a way; occupying a space means that you now must defend your claim. Imagine how difficult that is if your claim is predicated on the manifest unfairness of theft and dispossession. I think of the privilege I did not ask for but did both inherit and worked hard for to enable me to live semi-comfortably in a country where the majority struggle to make ends meet. That I can expend my energy being irritated at what the Canadian environmentalist or Norwegian social scientist said in the bar on Tuesday rather than recognize my how fucking lucky I am to be here doing this work that matters so much to me is a humbling and terrifying realization to make. And then I have to apologize.
Peeking is stealing the life you don’t share
There’s a map of memory, of us over there
Dangerous questions are near
I’m too busy chasing parades
To love you the same
I’ve begun a bit of a strange new friendship with two neighbours that moved into the recently vacated home two houses down from mine. Clint and Roxy are an engaged couple around my age, who, with two over-eager dogs and an amazingly haughty cat, have set about occupying the house formerly owned by an octogenarian couple. Clint owns and manages a successful plumbing business, and is in every way shape and form involved in its day to day affairs. His cracked fingers, dark tanned white skin, frequently dirt encrusted arms, and well-worn work boots are proof of that every day. He’s got a scraggly mustache a shade darker than his light brown hair, and his blue eyes are constantly alert and watchful. His fiancée, Roxy, is a dark eyed beauty with bleached hair, a ready grin, and a quick wit. Some days, when I’m walking home, thinking either about settlers, sexuality, or maybe what to have for dinner, they call from the ancient walled in front porch with its beauteously incongruous zebra print furniture, seeming to mock the stately order of the home, built during the high years of apartheid. Without fail, if I exchange more than four sentences with them from their front gate, dogs barking good naturedly at me through the fence, I’ll be invited in, offered a beer (or three), asked (pointedly) if I want to share dinner with them, and spend the next three to five hours talking about life, family, and friends.
Clint and Roxy’s hospitality is incredibly gracious, and their good humour is infectious. They are both fans of rough humour, long drinking parties, the occasional fisticuffs, and bad internet photos. They regale me of stories of Clint’s past, where he’d get blindly drunk or some oke would foolishly threaten him or his family and get a good hiding in response. In Clint and Roxy I see a very intriguing set of South African characteristics—they have taken a dubious stranger with a fly away afro, strange fashion sense, and an overly bookish temperament, and invited him in to share their life and hear who they are. We have silly in-jokes, and I find myself weirdly amused as the lines between ethnographer and neighbor become blurred very quickly. Occasionally jokes are highly racialized or would be just impossible to relate back to another human being, but in it, I am offered glimpses of another aspect of what life is like in South Africa for these working/middle class identified white South Africans. They have accepted my penchant of the absurd, and for combining ridiculous swear words in silly combinations, and the fact that I am genuinely interested in learning about them, and they help in some ways to make me feel a part of the neighbourhood that I live in.
But of course, my existence here is temporary, and I’ve begun wondering what next year will look like for me. This is no small feat, as I have spent the last few years preparing for this trip—it’s hard to imagine what my life would look like post-South Africa. Yet, I’m now waiting for replies to a spate of applications I’ve submitted for teaching and research fellowships across the country next year—I’ve applied to the University of Illinois, Ithaca College, University of Virginia, Marquette University, and the University of California, Santa Barbara for positions. So as I find myself critically wondering about my relationship to this place in the present, I am also facing an uncertain future, as I wonder where I am supposed to go and what I am supposed to be doing. I’ll be sure to keep you in the loop, but it’s another reason that I want to cling to routine—it seems safe and making sense for me as the future begins to appear on the horizon, disconcerting in its blankness.
So here I sit—sans the toast of the French—typing, aware of the ludicrous nature of my privilege, and grateful for the chance to be here. Now I need to push myself to new horizons and places, to be and do more. I am grateful for you all in listening to my ramblings, for offering love, support, and silliness, and I genuinely miss each of you. Don’t be strangers; I’d love to hear how you’re doing.